TO VOTE OR NOT TO VOTE…
I wrote this piece several elections ago, but it seems even more pertinent now than it was then. I have to confess, I originally wrote it mainly because I knew my son would read it. Ever since he’s attained the age granting him the franchise to vote, he has, to my knowledge, never exercised this right. Nor is he alone. The United States has one of the lowest voter turnouts amongst the democratic societies of this planet. To many of us, this is no startling revelation.
You could easily make the case that our level of voting apathy, combined with the ignorance, shortsightedness and provincialism of many of those who vote, are the reasons we can find so many of our politicians embodying the same traits. How else to explain former governor Kneip of South Dakota, when he was appointed as ambassador to Singapore declaring he had never heard of Gandhi. William Scott, ex-senator from Virginia, was called the dumbest senator in Congress by a magazine with limited circulation. He called a press conference to deny the charge. Or my favorite, ex-senator Roman Hruska’s comment that “there are a lot of mediocre people, and they are entitled to a little representation.” I don’t know any political reporter who would defend the position that today’s bunch in Washington is any more impressive.
In the postmortem of each election, the talking heads on the tube bemoan the apathy of the voters. Voting is good; apathy is bad. Some, however, would question this analysis. They make the argument that democracy in our country doesn’t work because too many of our voters are ignorant or too ill informed on the issues. Politicians are able to blurt sound bites like “military preparedness” or “Communism” or “soft-on-crime” and legions of voters follow like lemmings over the edge. When people don’t even know enough to follow their own self-interest, the system can’t work in the way it was designed to function.
The solution in a Utopian world would have all voters pass some type of uniform test, discriminating against no one, except those who had no knowledge whatsoever of any of the issues being contested. Some of us, imbued with civic class idealism, would argue that this is heresy, that suffrage is an inalienable right, that such a policy would go against what the Founding Fathers had intended.
Actually, the framers of the Constitution precisely intended a meritocracy, which is why they limited the franchise to those who owned land. In 1789, land ownership went hand in hand with a knowledge of public affairs. Matters went awry with the introduction of extended suffrage. That’s what had Mark Twain say of the nation’s politicians, “They are all crooks – and why? Because of universal suffrage. How, I ask you, can you have a country when every idiot male of twenty-one or more can vote?”
Realities dictate that there will not soon be any fundamental changes in our country’s political system. This leaves many of us utterly frustrated, our choices seemingly limited to supporting candidates for whom we have no respect or supporting no one at all. For those of us who have not been able to summon any enthusiasm for any political candidate since JFK, and who have by the legions opted out of the system altogether, the sad truth is that the results of the current State of the Union can be laid at our feet. Many now concede that politics in our country is largely a matter of cutting losses. It probably is as naïve at this point in time to expect honesty from our politicians as it is to expect originality of thought. Any positive change that will occur in our system will happen only by small increments.
The likelihood that changes for the better will only come slowly, and with great effort may well be the crux of our problem. For many of us in the post-war generation, given so much by our parents that we came to expect instant gratification as our birthright, perseverance remains a faintly amusing concept, like steadfastness or staunchness – words that seem to come from a bygone era.
That’s why I have so much admiration and respect for all those who have continued to work for those few candidates whose open expression of ideas and clear-cut stands on issues doomed their campaigns to fail before the onslaught of slick voter manipulation by cookie cutter manufactured spokesman of well funded issue groups. There still are Quixotic groups of people, going door to door, calling voters, attempting to explain issues, and supporting those who work in service of the odd belief that a politician should represent the interests and belief of the both the constituents, as well as the good of the country. I know of one such individual, still soldiering on, doing his part to make a change for the better in a district where the likelihood of his success appears to be insanely poor. I asked him, “Don’t you get discouraged? How do you keep doing this after all your disappointments?” He smiled, “I keep doing this because of all our old slogans, only one still makes sense today – ‘If your not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.’”